Trump Declares War on Law Enforcement
With his domestic agenda in disarray and his conservative support wilting, President Trump lashed out at the direct threat to his presidency: the rule of law.
In an extraordinary interview with the New York Times, Trump trashed his own attorney general, the deputy attorney general, former FBI director James Comey, the acting FBI director, and special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
Their offense in the eyes of the president? Fulfilling the duties of their positions.
If the president has sometimes sounded like he thinks that the government’s top law enforcement officers should defer to his whims, Trump made clear that is exactly what he believes. He said as much again and again in the interview.
Trump denounced his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for following the Justice Department’s rules of recusal on the investigation of possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.
“Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” he added. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair—and that’s a mild word—to the president.”
In fact, Justice Department policy required Sessions to recuse himself after it was revealed he had had two previously undisclosed meetings with Russian government officials before the election.
Ominously, Trump is now being open about conflating his personal predicament with the authority of the presidency. He wants an attorney general who puts protecting him ahead of following the established procedures for conducting independent investigations. Anything else would be “unfair to the president,” he said. In his own mind, he is defending the office.
He insulted former FBI Director Comey, saying his testimony to Congress was "loaded with lies." He asserted a right to shut down any FBI investigation, rejecting the argument that he had no authority to order Comey to drop his investigation of Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security adviser.
"Other people go further," Trump said. "I could have ended that whole thing just by saying—they say it can’t be obstruction because you can say: ‘It’s ended. It’s over. Period.’”
In Trump's view, the president and the president alone decides how the law is enforced.
Trump accused Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein of a conflict of interest. After Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation, Rosenstein took over. When Trump fired James Comey, Rosenstein appointed special prosecutor Robert Mueller, who may be investigating whether Comey's dismissal was an obstruction of justice.
“Well, that’s a conflict of interest,” Trump said. “Do you know how many conflicts of interests there are?”
By impugning Rosenstein, Trump is creating a justification for firing him. Rosenstein is the only government official with the authority to dismiss Mueller—whom Trump also accused of having a conflict of interest.
Mueller’s offense: He agreed to be interviewed by Trump when he was looking for an FBI director to replace Comey. Trump depicted Mueller as a self-serving bureaucrat.
“He was up here and he wanted the job,” Trump told the Times. "After he was named special counsel, I said, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ Talk about conflicts. But he was interviewing for the job. There were many other conflicts that I haven’t said, but I will at some point.”
If that sounds like a threat to fire Mueller for multiple alleged conflicts of interest at some point in the future, well, it was.
When asked if investigation of Trump family businesses “unrelated to Russia” would constitute a “red line” in the investigation, Trump said, “I think that’s a violation.” A violation of what, Trump did not say, but his answer implied he believes that the president can set limits on the special prosecutor’s investigation.
When asked what he would do if Mueller investigated his personal finances, Trump said only, “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” leaving the implication that if Mueller does look into areas that displease the president, his "violation" would be a firing offense.
It’s a chilling interview—chilling in its depiction of a president who sees himself as above the law, who expects deference from law enforcement and who threatens anyone who disagrees.
What’s also chilling is the groveling response of his targets.
Thrown under the proverbial bus by his boss, Jeff Sessions responded by issuing a statement Tuesday saying he plans to remain in his job "as long as that is appropriate."
Insulted by the president, Rod Rosenstein gave a pusillanimous interview to Fox News in which he declined to defend Mueller’s staff from Trump’s accusation of political bias. At the Justice Department, he said, “we judge by results. And so my view about that is, we'll see if they do the right thing.” Rather than express confidence in the professionalism of Mueller's staff, he left open the possibility that they might not do the right thing, which is exactly what Trump was insinuating.
Instead of standing up to the principle that the law applies to everyone, Sessions and Rosenstein ducked. Instead of defending the U.S. Constitution, they defended their paychecks.
Mueller, of course, cannot respond while he is conducting an investigation.
It is a sorry moment in the downward spiral of the Trump regime: Is there anyone in the Executive Branch of the U.S. government who will publicly defend the idea that the president is not above the law?
The answer is no, not yet.